The boots pound the pavement. Cadence is called from a female whose strained voice echoes across the wide open campus. The division’s feet are finally in step after going through two months of continuous training. This is everything they’ve trained for. This is everything they’ve studied crammed into one building placed strategically in the center of the base. This is their final test. This is BATTLE STATIONS.
Eight weeks earlier, the bus pulls into Chicago’s O’Hare airport’s terminal near the baggage claim. Countless numbers of new recruits, including myself, are waiting in civilian clothes. There isn’t any yelling yet, but I know there will be soon. I am ready. We are herded onto the bus in several lines, and we all take one last look around the airport.
The majority of the bus ride is in silence, except for the video and the answering of questions by the petty officer assigned to give us our first brief on what we are about to go about to go through. Through most of my research, I knew all of the information about the subject, but I am willing to learn more.
Amidst the rules and regulations, I immediately notice a sign as the bus ride ends. It is a sign located on a small brick wall located directly underneath the American Flag, which waves proudly in the wind. “Welcome to the US Navy.”
A smile crosses my face as more landmarks of Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, IL fill my vision. The bus stops in front of one that I notice in particular. Building 1405, The Golden Thirteen. Named for the first 13 African American officers, I step off the bus and enter that building for processing.
Immediately as I step through the doors, the orders start flying. Strangely enough, no one is yelling at me as I would’ve thought. They tell me, as well as the other riders of the bus, to form two lines on each side of the flags on the floor, which I now call a deck. We dispose of any and all unauthorized items then immediately make our phone calls to let our family know that we’ve arrived.
This was the start of my life as a Sailor, and the official end of my civilian life. This is the story of the beginning of the end of my transition from fat ass to Sailor.
On the phone, my wife’s voice never sounded so sweet. Her voice, so tender, so tearful, I will remember until the day that I die. As I hung up the phone, thoughts spring throughout my head. She is my heart, and she is now hundreds of miles away. I am alone.
Fast forward to later that night or early tomorrow. Time went by so very fast that no one knew what time it was. By that time, the riders of my bus have already been separated into male and female, and we’ve all changed into what will be called our “Smurfs.” They are sweats, and they are our first official uniform in the U.S. Navy. We’ve had our urine tested, had our pictures for our IDs taken, worked long into the night, and we have all struggled to stay awake. We’ve been weighed, measured, taped, poked, prodded, yelled at, and yet the fearful silence remained stronger than ever.
Within that fearful silence, I drew inside my recruit notebook: “You have to do this,” and “Bobbie loves you!” The ladder brought a smile to my face as I had to constantly remind myself of why I was there, who I was doing this for. Do it for her. You cannot quit now. You just got here.
As I enter a classroom with my full sea bag, a chief petty officer asks me if I’ve ever had any experience with rifle drill, playing in the high school band, or sang in a choir. I tell him immediately and without hesitation that I was the Commanding Officer of my JROTC drill team. He tells me to gather my gear and take myself to the chief petty officer waiting in the hallway. Little did I know, I had just been assigned to one of the most elite divisions in the command, Division 942, a Triple Threat Division assigned to the ship with a tradition of excellence, the USS CONSTITUTION.
My Recruit Division Commanders (RDCs) were ENC Flowers, who as a native of Chicago reminded me of one of the Bears, DC1 Walker, whose wiry frame and red hair had nothing to do with his heart but rather his temper, and AD2 Mezei, who was the toughest out of the three of them. I met them all in different places, but all of them with their own catch phrases made us laugh from time to time. Ironically enough, if we laughed at something DC1 Walker said to a recruit, we would soon be roshamboed or Spartan kicked to the chest. AD2 Mezei walked the fine line of joking and punishment, while ENC Flowers, who was the most patient out of the three of them, did eventually give us his wrath.
After being issued our new NWUs (Navy Working Uniforms), filling out countless paper work, and learning the rules and regulations of our new world, we went to medical, where we received six shots in 10 seconds and received our brand new birth control goggles (BCGs). I felt that I looked like Harry Carey in my new glasses.
Soon after that, we had our official test: Swim. The swim test is located inside of the USS Indianapolis, and after changing into the shorts that we wore everywhere underneath our NWUs, we entered the Olympic size pool area. The air was tense as the orders were strict. If you talked at all, you failed your swim test. You need your swim test to graduate. Failing the swim test due to talking was a guaranteed IT (Intensive Training) session via AD2 Mezei who was often ruthless when she broke out her card she affectingly called, “Old Faithful.” One recruit, SR Whittle (who often was THAT GUY in our division), talked and failed his test. He would later retake it and pass.
After our safety brief, we are told what to do. We have to drop from a 10-15ft platform, and immediately after hitting the water, we have to push ourselves up. We have to swim their way, or face being pulled out and failing. If we cannot do the strokes their way, we have to perform the elementary backstroke. If we cannot do that, we fail. After doing whichever stroke we chose for 50 yards, we have to tread water for five minutes, followed by floating by using a set of coveralls. If we fail to float and we tread water for more than thirty seconds, we fail. In this evolution, we are set up to test everything we have.
The pressure mounting, I took my place in the line for the platform. Most of the division has gone before me, and without my glasses, I see people failing left and right. I don’t know if they’re from our division or another division that is with us. The instructors are yelling, “Face in the water!” repeatedly and more recruits get pulled out of the water by long yellow poles held by the instructors.
Recruit by recruit, they all jump in with a slight push by the instructor located at the top of the dive point. It slowly becomes my turn at the top of the jump, and with my butterflies too terrified to flap, I leap off the platform with my arms crossed. I hit the water with more impact than I realize. Fear and instinct take over. Remember, push yourself out, now. I push myself out of the water and instantly start to swim. I hear the “Face in the water!” directed towards me, and I try to swim like that, but I fail. I feel a pole coming towards me. Instantly, I turn onto my back and I begin to do the elementary back stroke. For fifty yards, I could not see where I was going, but instead of panicking, I focused on a railing in the ceiling and used that as a guide.
As I reached the other side of the pool, exhausted, I pulled myself out. I was surprised at how fast it had taken my endurance out of me. Luckily between tests, I was able to rest. Still, my confidence wasn’t much better when it became my turn for the five minute float.
The float is constructed within a 3ft by 6ft rectangle on the side of the pool. Forty people in my training section within 18 square feet of water is like throwing a hundred fish into a tiny tank. There is nowhere to go as we all float within a tiny box. They tell us to spread out, but we can’t. There is a pattern to our chaos of flapping arms and legs, flap for a few seconds, and float. Repeat.
I would love to say that I passed this with ease. I would love to say that I got out of the pool, fresh as a spring daisy, ready to face another challenge. But alas, while I did pass, it was by the skin of my teeth. I am thankful that I did pass my swim test, which did include the coveralls floating.
Ironically enough, the rest of boot camp consisted of mostly studying, as well as a few PT sessions. The first few weeks went by without incident. The drill on Saturdays quickly became my favorite for the sole reason that I was able to spin a rifle again. It had been a few years since I’ve spun one, but once it was back in my hand, it was like it never left.
I had missed that feeling of spinning a rifle. How freely it sails through the air, sent by the muscles in my arms, and caught by the simple grasp of my hand at the perfect time. It was just one of the things that reminded me of home. I needed to be tied to home.
What a lot of people don’t understand about boot camp in the Navy isn’t the difficulty; it’s the separation from home and the sudden jolt from civilian life into military life. Not to mention the lack of common sense that leaves the moment you enter the base, and it returns the day of graduation. But after the first few weeks, it does get easier. You get used to your surroundings. The rest of the Navy is like that. Life is like that.
You start to live for certain days of the weeks, depending on your interests. Myself, I lived for the weekends. Saturdays, we had drill, and my artistic freedom could be accessed to help my divisional drill team create a routine to perform at the graduations. Sundays, we had holiday routine, which is where we have time to ourselves, and we get to write home.
Mail is like an addictive drug at boot camp. It’s like people handing out food to the hungry people in Uganda. Everyone rushes up to the Recruit Mail Petty Officer, and waits patiently until their name is called. Some are heartbroken by the absence of their name; while others get so much mail that they get alienated and are made to be jealous by the other recruits. I was the ladder.
My lovely wife fortunately gave me so many letters that the RDCs, who initially gave it out, got tired of calling my name constantly. If the letters were too heavy, or looked like that we had something smuggled inside, we would have to open it in front of them. Needless to say, I had to open nearly all of the 58 letters that my wife wrote me during boot camp.
The tests aren’t too hard if you study, and the big thing that everyone wants to know about boot camp is BATTLE STATIONS. Battle stations is something that I cannot say anything about. I will leave it up to the Recruits who go through it, or even who are about to go through it, to tell the tale. The only thing that I can say is that it made me realize that I am much more of a man. I have more courage than I realized. The training I received made me that way. I have no one else to thank other than my instructors and my fellow Shipmates who were that final class in the USS Constitution.
As boot camp ended, and graduation took place, I can tell you about all of the romantic side about seeing my wife and family again, but I won’t. You’ve read that story time and time again. Instead, I’ll tell you what I was thinking to myself as I walked back from the train station alone.
While my heart sank into the cove of my depths, step by step I took myself back to work. It was time to start the journey again. Although it wouldn’t be long before I would be able to talk with her again, I found myself thinking over boot camp and realizing that this is the end of the first act of my training. I was officially a Sailor, and that my journey from a 260 lb. boy to a 172 lb. Sailor had ended. My journey to the top of the ranks; however, it was just the beginning.
Guest post written and submitted by SN Geoff Breedwell.
Well done, Shipmate.
Welcome to U.S. Navy Boot Camp
Enjoy the informative video produced by the Navy about boot-camp at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Il.
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